THE BLOODY KOKODA CAMPAIGN

The Japanese capture Kokoda

With most of his troops either still in Port Moresby or strung out along the Kokoda Track, and a mixed force of about one hundred 39th Battalion and native troops under his command at Kokoda, Lieutenant Colonel Owen prepared to defend the airstrip against at least 500 elite Japanese troops equipped with heavy machine-guns and mortars. When the Japanese attack came, the Australians were quickly overwhelmed and Kokoda was captured on 29 July 1942.

With Port Moresby now the target, Japanese troops pour into the Gona-Buna beachhead

With Japanese troops having reached Kokoda and captured the airstrip, Lieutenant General Hyakutake decided that the Kokoda Track route to Port Moresby was practicable and began to pour troops into the Gona-Buna beachhead. By 26 August 1942, the continuing Japanese troop build-up in the Gona-Buna-Kokoda triangle would reach 13,500 troops, and ten thousand of these would be tough, jungle-trained combat veterans. From these troops, Major General Tomitaro Horii, Commander of the South Seas Detachment, would draw a well-balanced fighting group which included six of his own battalions, mountain artillery, and engineers, for the overland attack on Port Moresby.

These young warriors of the 2/14th Battalion, 7th Division have given a splendid account of themselves in the Middle East. Now they have been brought back to Australia to confront Japanese troops advancing along the Kokoda Track towards Australia. The bad military judgment, poor planning, and inadequate intelligence gathering of Australia's senior commanders, MacArthur and Blamey, will cause them to be outnumbered by at least five to one by elite Japanese troops better equipped and supplied than them. In the bloody fighting on the Kokoda Track eighty percent of the 2/14th Battalion will be killed or wounded.To excuse their incompetent leadership and avoid dismissal, MacArthur and Blamey will falsely claim that the Australians were retreating from a Japanese army inferior in numbers to the Australians. Shown in this photograph are (from left to right) Lieutenant Moore, Lieutenant Bissett, Captain Nye, Lieutenant Mason, and Captain Treacy. Only one will survive the Kokoda Campaign.

The neglect by MacArthur and Blamey to send seasoned AIF troops to New Guinea at the earliest opportunity could have had disastrous consequences for Australia when six thousand battle-toughened Japanese troops began their determined push along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby in late August 1942. When that happened, all that stood initially between a powerful Japanese army and Port Moresby were several hundred inexperienced, poorly equipped, and poorly supplied militia troops of the 39th Battalion who were determined to make a fighting stand at the village of Isurava. Every member of the 39th Battalion knew that if the Japanese broke through they could reach Port Moresby and threaten Australia.

The capture of Kokoda spurs a belated and inadequate response from MacArthur and Blamey

It was only when the vital airstrip at Kokoda was lost that MacArthur and Blamey appear to have appreciated the danger to which their neglect could expose Australia. Blamey ordered veteran Australian troops of the 7th Division to embark immediately for New Guinea. Although the notice to embark and time for preparation were both dangerously short, two battalions of the 21st Brigade boarded ship for Port Moresby on 6 August 1942. The haste in which this was done placed the 7th Division troops in a perilous situation when they moved into the mountains to meet the oncoming Japanese. The AIF troops could only negotiate the Kokoda Track in single file, and General Blamey had made no provision for adequate supplies and equipment to be on hand when they finally confronted the Japanese. In the bloody battles that followed along the Kokoda Track, only fine leadership by Australian field commanders and the raw courage of their troops in the face of overwhelming odds saved Australia and compensated for the poor judgment of senior commanders in Australia.

MacArthur and Blamey persist in ignoring the Japanese threat to Port Moresby

When MacArthur and Blamey committed two battalions of the 21st Brigade to block the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby, they had no idea of the actual size of the Japanese army that was intending to capture Port Moresby by crossing the Owen Stanley Range. On 15 August 1942, which was the day before the two AIF battalions left Port Moresby to cross the Owen Stanleys, intelligence reported that an additional 4,000 Japanese troops had landed at Gona, and that about 1,800 of these had been identified as combat troops. Adding to these combat troops the Japanese combat troops who had earlier landed at Gona on 21 July, MacArthur and Blamey should have been aware that they were sending only two Australian AIF battalions, or roughly 1,100 troops, against an advancing Japanese force numbering at least 2,500 combat troops. By the time that the first AIF battalion reached Isurava to relieve the 39th Battalion, the Australians were actually facing 5,000 Japanese combat troops.

With Japanese troops already on the Kokoda Track at Deniki, Blamey demonstrated his lack of comprehension of the situation in New Guinea by assuring the army commander at Port Moresby that the Japanese were unlikely to mount an overland attack on Port Moresby.

MacArthur and "The Gap" myth

With Kokoda lost and a Japanese army advancing along the Kokoda Track towards Port Moresby, staff officers at MacArthur's headquarters in Australia began to panic and hare-brained schemes for blocking the Japanese were floated by men who knew little of military combat beyond what they read in the papers that crossed their desks. They knew even less about the conditions under which the Australians were fighting in New Guinea.

The complete failure of MacArthur and his American staff officers to appreciate the nature of the terrain over which Australian troops were fighting the Japanese is apparent from their naïve acceptance of "The Gap" myth. They had been led to believe that there was a narrow pass, called "The Gap", between unscaleable rock faces on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range. Without any objective evidence to support such a fanciful notion, MacArthur's staff officers thought that a small band of highly motivated Australian troops could block the passage of a Japanese army at "The Gap". "The Gap" was likened by them to the pass at Thermopylae in Greece where several hundred Spartan warriors held at bay an invading army of hundreds of thousands of Persians. Alternatively, MacArthur's staff officers argued that the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby could be blocked by dynamiting "The Gap". When eventually examined by Australian AIF troops of the 21st Brigade after they had crossed the Owen Stanleys, "The Gap" turned out to be nothing more than an eleven kilometre (6.8 miles) wide shallow depression in a mountain ridge that was used by pilots as a landmark when crossing the Owen Stanleys.

Further evidence that MacArthur was completely out of touch with the reality of the situation in New Guinea can be found in his assurance to Prime Minister Curtin on 17 August 1942 that a Japanese army would not be capable of crossing the rugged mountains of the Owen Stanley Range. It is difficult to comprehend how MacArthur could give such an assurance when he and Blamey had already sent the 39th Battalion across those same mountains to Kokoda and were in the process of sending two battalions of the 21st Brigade to Kokoda.

The Battle of Isurava

When the first AIF troops of the 2/14th Battalion reached Isurava village on top of one of the northern mountains forming the Owen Stanley Range on the afternoon of 26 August, they found that the 39th Battalion had suffered heavy losses, and the troops were starving and exhausted. Although outnumbered by at least ten to one by Major General Horii's army, the lightly armed troops of the 39th Battalion were still blocking the movement of the Japanese along the track to Port Moresby. Even though the 39th Battalion declined to be relieved, and stayed to support the 2/14th Battalion at Isurava, the Australians were still outnumbered by at least five to one and were facing at least 5,000 elite, jungle-trained combat troops armed with mortars and mountain artillery. It was only at this stage that the Commander of the 21st Brigade, Brigadier Arnold Potts, realised that his two inadequately supplied AIF battalions were heavily outnumbered and outgunned by a better equipped and supplied Japanese army.

In the great battle that took place at Isurava over four days from 26 to 29 August 1942 the Australians withstood wave after wave of suicidal Japanese human wave attacks. Knowing that the Australians were heavily outnumbered, Major General Horii was prepared to sacrifice a large number of his troops to overrun the Australian defensive positions. He believed that if he could crush the Australians at Isurava, his army would acquire the momentum necessary to carry it all the way to Port Moresby. Intelligence estimates suggest that Horii sacrificed at least 800 killed and 1,200 wounded in human wave attacks on the thin Australian lines.

By sheer weight of numbers, the Japanese finally penetrated the Australian defensive perimeter on the western side and occupied vital high ground that had previously been held by the 2/14th Battalion. From this high ground, the Japanese would have been able to rake the Australian defenders with heavy machine-gun fire. The 2/14th had suffered heavy casualties in continuous heavy fighting over the last three days, and the Australian troops were tired. Any attempt to retake the high ground would require commitment of the remaining reserve troops at Isurava. However, these reserves were not fresh troops but the starved and exhausted men of the 39th Battalion. The Commanding Officer of the 2/14th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Keys, realised that the position of the Australians at Isurava had become untenable in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers and the loss of the western high ground. He received permission to withdraw from Isurava and set up a new defensive position further down the Kokoda Track.

A lengthy fighting retreat by the Australians defeats Major General Horii

Despite the compelling need to withdraw from Isurava, the Australians had already sown the seeds of Horii's ultimate defeat. They had disrupted the Japanese timetable for the capture of Port Moresby. They had won vital time for another AIF brigade to arrive from Australia, and they had seriously impaired the fighting strength of Horii's army. Although continuing to suffer very heavy losses, the Australians staged a fighting withdrawal lasting almost four weeks across the Owen Stanleys from Isurava to Imita Ridge on the mountains overlooking Port Moresby. At this point, on 25 September 1942, the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby ran out of steam. In their fierce determination to overcome the Australians, the Japanese had sustained nearly 3,000 battle casualties on the Kokoda Track. With Horii's supply lines in chaos, and his troops starving and exhausted, the Japanese Army General Staff acknowledged defeat on the Kokoda Track. On the evening of 25 September 1942, Horii was ordered to withdraw his battered army to the Japanese beachheads at Gona-Buna. A savage war of attrition between American forces and the Japanese over possession of the strategic island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons had deprived the Japanese of the capacity to reinforce Horii's troops for the final push to Port Moresby.

It was a bitter blow for Major General Horii to have to turn back when he was only about 65 kilometres (40 miles) from Port Moresby, and when his troops could see searchlights sweeping the sky above the town from the heights at Ioribaiwa. On the following day, 26 September 1942, Australian patrols found the Japanese lines deserted. Port Moresby had been saved by the heroic resistance of the 39th Battalion and the AIF troops of the 21st Brigade, but the cost in Australian lives had been very high.

MacArthur and Blamey shift the blame for the tragic consequences of their neglect

MacArthur and Blamey were both severely criticised for their neglect to provide adequate defences for Port Moresby and for the heavy loss of Australian lives on the Kokoda Track that followed from that neglect. MacArthur was adept at shifting the blame for his mistakes to troops under his command, and he announced his view that the Australian troops on the Kokoda Track were poor fighters who were retreating from a smaller number of Japanese troops. This was a blatant lie because the Australians were always outnumbered by at least five to one by elite Japanese troops until the Japanese reached the heights overlooking Port Moresby. At this point, the exhausted survivors of the Australian 21st Brigade were finally reinforced by the fresh 25th Brigade, newly arrived from Australia.

With his leadership of the Australian Army on the line, and to his everlasting shame, Blamey also criticised the fighting qualities
of the Australian troops and their field commanders for failing initially to stem the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby.

General Blamey followed the MacArthur line when seeking to excuse his own culpable neglect of Australia's northern defences. With his leadership of the Australian Army on the line, and seeing his dream of a Field Marshal's baton fading, Blamey ignored the overwhelming strength of the Japanese invasion force and the supply problems faced by Australian troops on the Kokoda Track. To his everlasting shame, Blamey also criticised the fighting qualities of the Australian troops and their field commanders for failing initially to stem the Japanese drive towards Port Moresby.

Author's Note re: General Sir Thomas Blamey

It needs to be recorded that General Blamey's shameful behaviour as commander of Australian troops during the Kokoda Campaign was not the first occasion that his conduct came under critical public scrutiny. His appointment as Chief Commissioner of the Victoria Police was terminated in 1936 following sex scandals and public questioning of his probity. See article.

As the epic and tragic battle on the Kokoda Track unfolds in the following pages, visitors to this web-site are invited to ask themselves: Were the views of MacArthur and Blamey valid, or were they foul slander of brave Australian troops and their field commanders? 

The Japanese defeat at Milne Bay

While the Australians were preparing at Isurava to block the main Japanese drive over the Owen Stanley Range towards Port Moresby, on the night of 25-26 August 1942, the second stage of the overland Japanese offensive against Port Moresby was launched when elite marines of a Japanese seaborne invasion force were landed at Milne Bay on the eastern tip of Papua.

At Milne Bay the Australians and Americans had been developing a forward airbase since June 1942. Capture of Milne Bay would have provided the Japanese with an airstrip from which Major General Horii's attack on Port Moresby could be supported by Japanese aircraft.

After fierce fighting, and hampered by heavy rain, mud, and communication difficulties, Australian troops forced the Japanese invaders to withdraw on 5 September 1942. For the first time in World War II, a Japanese invasion force had been driven back into the sea. This Japanese defeat had enormous psychological significance for the Allied forces in the South-West Pacific because it proved to the world for the first time that the Japanese soldier was not invincible.

The Battle of the Beachheads - Gona, Buna and Sanananda

In the mistaken belief that General Horii’s retreating troops were beaten, and that only a couple of thousand starving and exhausted survivors of the Kokoda Track would have reached the Japanese beachheads on the northern coast of Papua, General MacArthur ordered an assault by Australian and American troops on the Japanese beachheads stretching from the village of Gona to the neighbouring village of Buna.

However, the Japanese had turned the beachhead villages into heavily fortified strongholds and had poured in thousands of fresh troops. MacArthur's terrible mistake, once again the result of poor intelligence gathering and poor military judgment, produced a very heavy cost in Australian and American lives. With the sea on one side, and protected by swamp and jungle on the landward side, nine thousand fanatical Japanese troops had prepared a killing ground for the advancing Australian and American troops. From their camouflaged bunkers and sniper positions, the Japanese took a heavy toll on the Australians and Americans over the two months of savage fighting in appalling conditions that were necessary to capture the Japanese beachheads and expel the invaders from the Territory of Papua.

The terrible cost of the Kokoda Campaign

The Japanese Kokoda Campaign ended in defeat on 22 January 1943 after six months of some of the bloodiest and most difficult land fighting of the Pacific War. Australia lost 2,165 troops killed and 3,533 wounded. The United States lost 671 troops killed and 2,172 wounded. Of the near 20,000 Japanese troops landed in Papua between 21 July 1942 and 22 January 1943, it is estimated that the Japanese lost about 13,000.

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